On September 13th, 1906, a 29-year-old graduate student at Cornell University named Robert Pottenger Jr. made a revolutionary discovery that would forever change the way we view the world – and themselves – around food.

Pottenger was studying nutrition, specifically how much food people needed to maintain good health. He began by meticulously recording every single bite of food that every one of his study participants – all of whom were suffering from tuberculosis – ate over the course of a day. Using statistical analysis, he was able to show that certain food combinations could dramatically cut the number of daily coughs and fever episodes as well as the patients’ dependency on – and hence the size of – their anti-tuberculosis medication.

Pottenger’s groundbreaking work eventually led him to develop the Pottenger Diet, which he published in 1913. The diet, which is still in use today, limits the amount of certain foods that TB patients are allowed to eat. The specific foods that Pottenger and his colleagues deemed safe for tuberculosis patients included egg, lobster, tuna fish, chicken, and turkey. These foods must be avoided by lactating and pregnant women, as well as those who are allergic to any of them.

The diet’s popularity led to it being used as a model for similar dietary restrictions designed to treat various illnesses. Since Pottenger’s initial study, the field of nutrition has evolved to incorporate more sophisticated methods of data collection and analysis, which has led to even more precise dietary recommendations and restrictions. For example, the Atkins Diet limits certain foods that are high in carbs while also limiting the amount of fat that you’re allowed to eat. In other words, it’s basically the exact opposite of the Pottenger Diet.

A Revolutionary Idea

When Pottenger published his findings, he presented them to the scientific community as a counterpoint to the conventional wisdom of the day, which held that TB patients should eat as much as possible to promote their health. Conventional wisdom held that you should eat eggs, for example, because they’re high in vitamin B.

The conventional wisdom on which Pottenger’s findings was based, however, had been established over a century before. Back in 1874, Armand Trousseau, a Parisian physician, published a book that laid out the prevailing nutritional theory at the time. In it, he wrote:

“It is unquestionable that the alimentary canal in its entirety offers one of the most beautiful manifestations of organization and design that one can possibly envision. It requires a skilled hand to transform this marvelous creation from the inside out. We must understand that this transformation will be both subtle and profound, since our goal is not only to provide the nourishment necessary to sustain life but also to allow the body to achieve its maximum potential.”

Trousseau’s statement, which is often attributed to the French gastronome Nicolas Pierre, could not be more appropriate for what is now known as bio-mechanistic nutrition, which focuses on the role of food in producing optimal human functioning.

One Man’s Quest For Answers

For Pottenger, the answers to his questions about nutrition were at the root of a personal quest for answers. As he explained in an interview:

“I didn’t know what was wrong with me as far as digestion was concerned. I’d taken all the common remedies: I’d tried them all, and nothing worked. Finally, I decided to experiment on myself. I began by cutting out most of the foods I ate and then gradually added them one-by-one, bit by bit, until I could tell whether or not I was reacting to any of them.”

Pottenger began eating only what was recommended by his study, avoiding eggs, lobster, tuna fish, chicken, and turkey. After going through three weeks of horrible stomach pains, he was finally able to pinpoint what was causing him to feel so sick – it wasn’t any of his food choices, but rather an allergy to almonds. Since then, Pottenger has devoted his life to finding a way to break the allergy, which affects many people, and to helping others with food allergies find a solution.

Pottenger continued to test the effects of the different food combinations on his study participants. He found that the egg white – which, as we mentioned, he’d previously ruled out as part of his diet – was having a restorative effect on his study participants and decided to include it in his diet. But what about lobster, which he’d also eliminated from his diet? Would including it be detrimental to his health? He decided to give it a try, and to his delight, his study participants began recovering immediately.

Pottenger’s Diet In Use Today

Despite its now-famous status, the Pottenger Diet wasn’t immediately adopted by the medical community, which is perhaps unsurprising given the fact that it was published during the height of the Tuberculosis pandemic. While conventional wisdom held that TB patients should eat as much as possible in an attempt to restore their health, the emerging science of nutrition held that the opposite was true: you should avoid food that is high in carbohydrates since they exacerbate your illness.

Nevertheless, the Pottenger Diet’s popularity grew, and by 1920 it was reportedly being followed by as many as 500,000 people worldwide. In 1928, Dr. Otto Huttman, who specialized in pediatrics, wrote that the Pottenger Diet “has been and is still being followed by hundreds of thousands of people, mostly children and young adults.” In 1938, Dr. Ralph W. Marston, founder of the National Heart Research Foundation, said that the Pottenger Diet was “widely used as a model for the treatment of diseases in children and young adults,” noting that it had been responsible for “reducing severe dental caries, correcting kyphosis, and improving hematological and organ functions.” He also credited it with “having a significant effect on tuberculosis in children and adolescents.”

Dr. James A. Neuberger, who collaborated with Marston on a 1945 publication in which they described the Pottenger Diet, went so far as to say that it was “widely used as a model for the treatment of diseases in children and young adults, especially those involving the bones and teeth.” Neuberger and Marston even suggested that the Pottenger Diet could be used to “elevate the functional efficiency of adults as well,” though they didn’t present any scientific evidence to back up their claim.

Today, the Pottenger Diet is still used as a model for restrictive diets aimed at treating various ailments. As we’ve discussed, dietary restrictions based on the Pottenger Diet can be designed to limit the amount of foods that people are allowed to eat – including those who are prone to digestive issues – to treat a variety of health problems. People who adhere to the Pottenger Diet are sometimes referred to as “picky eaters,” since their diets demand more detail than others.

Pottenger’s Contributions To Science

Even as he dedicated his life to finding a cure for his food allergies, Pottenger made significant scientific contributions, publishing more than 50 papers in his – now legendary – career.

One of his most significant discoveries, which he first published in 1911, was that a combination of eggs and lobster had a synergistic effect on the health of his study participants. For decades, this was the only scientific evidence that egg and lobster were beneficial to each other – until 1996, when researchers at Villejuif University in France unveiled an experiment in which they demonstrated that the combination of the two is, in fact, more effective than either one alone in treating rats with type 2 diabetes.

Pottenger’s Contributions To Public Health

Besides being a renowned medical researcher, Pottenger also made significant contributions to public health through his research on nutrition and the promotion of good dietary habits. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the average lifespan was only around 40 years – but since Pottenger’s dietary restrictions became commonplace, the average lifespan has increased by more than 10 years. 

In addition to extending the average lifespan, the restrictions imposed by the Pottenger Diet have been known to prevent or alleviate a number of diseases. As we’ve discussed, this is due, in large part, to the synergistic effect that eggs and lobster have on one another when eaten together. The combination of the two is more effective at treating numerous health ailments than each individual food item is separately, and this has been demonstrated by numerous scientific studies that were done prior to and since Pottenger’s discovery.